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Electoral Reform

By Stephanie Dunlap · August 17th, 2005 · All The News That Fits
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It looks as though voters will be able to do more Nov. 8 than choose Cincinnati's new mayor and revamp city council; they might also be able to retool Ohio's electoral system.

A group called Reform Ohio Now has collected half a million signatures, more than enough to put three separate election reform initiatives on the Ohio ballot this fall.

That leaves Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell's office in charge of verifying the signatures that could lead to his rewritten job description. One of the three constitutional amendments will take oversight of statewide elections away from Blackwell's office and hand it to a bipartisan, nine-member State Board of Elections that resembles county boards of elections.

"If a bipartisan system is good enough for all of our 88 counties, it should be good enough for Ohio as a whole," says Reform Ohio Now's Web site (http://www.reformohionow.org).

It's a very clear response to Ohio voters' woes in the last presidential election -- long lines snaking through rain, not enough voting machines in certain largely Democratic districts -- and Blackwell's concurrent involvement as co-chair of the state's Bush-Cheney campaign.

The amendment would also allow Ohioans to vote by mail, "ensuring equal access to everyone," according to the Web site.

Another amendment would take the job of drawing Ohio's state and federal electoral districts away from politicians, whose gerrymandering creates absurdly drawn districts packed with voters who favor one political party -- right now in Ohio, that's the Republican Party -- to make sure opposition candidates don't really stand a chance.

Instead, Reform Ohio Now (RON) would create an independent, five-person board to which even just plain unelected folks can submit their plans for legislative districts. The commission should choose the plan it thinks creates the most competitive districts without dividing up cities and counties, the Web site says.

Politicians usually redraw the districts every 10 years after the U.S. Census, but RON wants the first redrawn districts to go into effect for the 2008 elections, instead of waiting until 2011. Republicans just dropped a plan to introduce a competing amendment that would delay changed districts until after that next census.

Former State Sen. Richard Finan, a Republican who was once Senate president, formed a group called Ohio First to thwart RON's efforts. But his own first efforts were recently shot down, as the Ohio Supreme Court threw out his lawsuit challenging RON's petition language. News reports hint that Ohio First isn't finished challenging RON.

A third ballot initiative intends to reform Ohio's campaign finance laws, which state legislators just "reformed" for the worse (see "Election Sale," issue of March 23-29). Among other changes, lawmakers raised the amount an individual can contribute, first toward a candidate's primary election push and then again toward his/her general election bid, from $2,500 to $10,000.

RON's amendment would reverse that move and then some, limiting individual campaign contributions to $2,000 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for legislative candidates. It would also completely ban corporate contributions and require fuller donor disclosure.

Campaign donations are a hot topic in local elections, too. The Cincinnati Elections Commission just voted to allow candidates to accept up to $2,500 from other candidates' committees, instead of subjecting them to the same $1,000 cap that limits individual donations.

Delighted mayoral candidate the Rev. Charlie Winburn, a Republican, had asked the commission to look into the legality of accepting contributions from other candidates.

Winburn's fellow mayoral candidate Councilman David Pepper, a Democrat, is appalled by the commission's ruling. He envisions private donors funneling $2,500 through state lawmakers and back into local candidates' coffers.

"It's just a big loophole," Pepper says. "Our purpose is to keep it as clean and loophole-free as possible."



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